Should the British taxpayer be funding Unesco?

Wilkinson Eyre’s Dyson Academy in Bath was scrapped following pressure from Unesco regarding the world heritage site

Yes, says Adam Wilkinson, Unesco is an invaluable tool in the struggle for global harmony; but Robert Adam questions the validity of an unchecked world heritage police force


The withdrawal from Unesco in the 1980s was ostensibly in protest at the state of the organisation. Today, however, it is a very different organisation: well-administered and respected by professionals working in its many fields, of which culture and heritage make up a small part, for the support and expertise it brings to the table. 

World Heritage status and other Unesco cultural designations, such as City of Literature and City of Music are about recognising the importance and relevance of our cultural heritage to the contemporary world, whether it be the relevance of the Scottish Enlightenment or the recognition that our prehistoric ancestors at Stonehenge saw themselves as part of a wider world.

In this respect, the UK’s membership of Unesco is not so much a question of “what do we get from it”, but “what can we give”. The UK has some of the leading experts in the investigation, care, management and conservation of the historic environment, and through Unesco and its structures we are able to share these skills and spread best practice. In return, our eyes are opened to the rest of the world and to different ways of looking at our own culture and society.

The fundamental driver behind all this is the pursuit of peace and avoidance of war through creating understanding between nations of their common cultural ground. Peace creates prosperity. Given the human and financial cost of going to war, £12 million seems like a bargain.


Unesco is a global quango. Quangos are sometimes useful but often self-serving. At least national quangos can be called to order by governments. Unesco is only under the control of another monster quango, the United Nations, and governments of the world just cough up to keep it going. If everyone pays, no one’s in control; something that’s owned by everyone is owned by no one. This is a formula for a massive gravy train.

International Unesco staff and their friends trot the globe, they meet at special conferences in exotic places, they bump into one another in airport business lounges, they splash about in luxury hotel pools, they talk about culture in little coteries and they issue documents hardly anyone reads. A wonderful life.

To be fair, the lucky beneficiaries of this charmed quasi-academic life can do some good. Remote and ignored places can be rescued from neglect and ignorance. But there is a sinister side. Unesco staff can act like global heritage policemen, threatening to take away World Heritage Site status, persuading governments to make decisions based on the opinions of an unelected outsider.

Worse still are the charters and memorandums put out by cliques of “experts”. These take on the force of law as they pass into national regulations hardly touching the sides of a democratic process. Is this right? In these straitened times, all quangos should feel the cold blast of accountability.
what do you think?

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